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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 32, No. 16. July 16, 1969

R. D. Tustin and M. A. Peters look at — The Problems of Exams

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R. D. Tustin and M. A. Peters look at
The Problems of Exams

Exams have existed ever since the introduction or formal mass education. They have remained a static feature of the educational system, while other aspects of the system have undergone liberal and profound improvements.

We propose a change.

We feel that exams are needed in the present materialistic society as they serve the functions of providing an incentive to students, and an objective claim to academic ability.

The problem is that the present examination system is relatively independent of the teaching system. Final grades are in no way related to any of the techniques used in teaching i.e. attendance at lectures and tutorials, marks in essays, etc. Instead the exam is an end towards which the student directs his academic abilities. (N.B. It is not the only end promoted by the current system)

The claim that university is a degree factory is a result of the fact that exams dominate a student's study. Each student tends to orientate his study towards geting the exam rather than toward understanding his, subject by increasing his knowledge. If the teaching and exams systems were more integrated then the grounds for his claim would collapse as it would be no longer possible to say that the teaching system was aimed at getting exams.

The time actually spent on finals is negligible compared to the importance that finals play in the student's life. This means that the student must devote his energies to being in top shape both physically and mentally at the particular time when finals are held. To some extent this is a contradictory demand to make on the student as he is expected to perform best when the stress upon him is at its greatest.

This situation arises because students are expected to convey in six or so hours the information it has taken him eight months to collect, collate, and evaluate. Most departments avoid this problem by testing students not on the complete course, but on specific, selected aspects of it. Students are forced to select and anticipate likely questions, and orientate their efforts towards these questions. Students who have the cunning to anticipate questions gain an advantage for reasons other than purely those of knowledge, A more positive approach would be to examine students on what they do know rather than on what they do not know.

To resolve this dilemma of having to sit exams when the stress is greatest the student must be able to increase his various abilities so that he can still pass the exam although he is effected by the stress. The abilities which he has to develope include such things as 'cramming' and retaining knowledge for a short period, selecting and concentrating on specific and likely questions, writing fast and coherently for a short duration, and adopting an approach which enables one to minimise the psychological effects produced by having to sit exams.

These abilities arc useful only for sitting exams. The present examination system besides testing the student's knowledge of a subject, also tests his skill ind developing these abilities. The final grades, then, do not necessarily reflect the student's releative ability in his subject. Under the present system there are no other alternatives open to the student to ensure his success in finals.

We will now deal with three defects of the present system.

• The system has a large amount of stress resulting from the concentration of finals within a brief period at the end of the year.

• The student is faced with the impossible task of having to relate a year's learning in only six hours.

• The method of written examination favours some students who have mastered the specific skills required by examination.

The first defects can be diminished by spreading finals evenly throughout the year (e.g. economics). The second defect can be lessened by having longer and more exams, something which, we think, would prove totally unacceptable to students and administrators. So far no suggestion has been prouosed for remedying the last dfect.

Can the system he changed so as to reduce this climax of tension at the time of finals and promote a fairer estimate of the student's ability and progress? Some of the alternative methods of evaluating the student's academic ability are listed below.

• Have the final grade based on the standard of the student's written work. But as essays arc made more important there will be an increasing tendency to improve the essay by having another more qualified person write it. This is considered dishonest if done on a large scale, although it is considered beneficial for a student to consult with others before committing his views in writing. There is confusion in student thinking on this issue. It is considered to be acceptable and beneficial to burrow ideas from books, yet is it considered dishonest and 'cheating' if the sources happen to be another student's essay. The dishonesty issue arises when another person docs a major part of the student's thinking for him. This effect can be reduced if th escope of the essay is increased until it becomes a minor research paper. People who could be induced to run off an essay for another might baulk at doing a more demanding work. But it is undesirable to have students at an early stage specialise in the manner which the research paper would demand.

• Have the final grade determined by the standard of the student's participation in tutorials. This would increase administrative problems as it would demand that the numbers of students in a tutorial would have to be reduced to so few that each student would have a chance to clearly state his views. If the tutorial numbers were kept at the present level (9 +) then only the more aggressive students would succeed in stating their views. A further limitation of this ideal is that there is a much greater likelihood of personality clash in a scheme where communication is by spoken word than where it is written. The student would be more susceptible to being downgraded because the tutor dislikes him personally. This likelihood is increased if there is no record of the spoken communication.

• Oral exams are shorter in time but are more tense, and much depends on the ability of the examiner to relax the student. New personal problems arise e.g. excitedness disturbs breathing in speech.

The conclusion we draw from this is that although the written exam technique is no perfect it is better to impose this technique on all students than to impose any other single technique.

Would any of the defects be eliminated by combining the techniques? No. The advantages gained are that the students have the stress somewhat alleviated by being enabled to avoid the methods they find most distasteful, and of spreading the examinations over the year.

Earlier in the paper the idea of extending the essay as a means of examination was debunkd because of the possibility of cheating. We would now like to propose an alteration that will eliminate this possibility. The scheme would be this: the student would submit his essay to the tutor in the usual fashion. The tutor would mark the essay and then examine the student on the ideas contained in the essay. This would mean that the student, whether having written the essay or not, would have to know the ideas so thoroughly that he could defend them against the marker's criticism. The student would be marked on both the content of the essay and his defense of it. The elaboration of the essay would be oral.

This suggestion leaves the essay as a possible means of examination. This essay-test technique has many of the advantages of the written exam without its disadvantages i.e. the time limit. The advantages are that:

• It promotes clear and concise expression.

•It developes the ability to follow a logical train of thought to its natural conclusion.

• It developes the ability to organise and collate material.

Which system of examination would we impose on students? Rather than impose one technique on all students we would suggest that each student be allowed to choose the technique which best suits his abilities, whether it be written exam, oral exam, tutorial participation, or essay-test. Each type of examination has its defects and it would be the responsibility of each student to choose his own style of exam, or combination of styles.

We suggest that at the end of the year after participating fully in essays, tutorials, written and oral exams, that the student choose which he wants to be evaluated by. He knows the marks he has earned before he must make the choice. If a student decides early in the year which method best suits him then he can concentrate in preparing himself for it, as is now done with written exams. If a student docs not know which method best suits him then he can spread his effort, going through each type of exam and deciding, after he knows the results of each, which type he wishes to be used in determining his final grade. Naturally he would choose the method in which his performance was best. If in one method his standard was too low to obtain a pass then he would choose to have this ignored, and further loading to be put on the other methods. In this way a student would avoid being penalised by a poor performance in one exam.

Many subjects do not lend themselves to examination under some of these techniques e.g. languages cannot be effectively tested by the essay-test style: Maths cannot be tested by an oral exam. For this reason some departments would be unable to offer all forms of exam. But other departments may offer new types of exams e.g. laboratory practical. Each department would decide whether it wished to make any single style of examination compulsory. These compulsory elements undermine the system which we propose.

This paper has provided an alternative means of evaluating students. The system suggested here could be put to work.

The disadvantage of this system lies in the increase in administrative problems it involves. What new strains would be placed on the administration? Essay marking already takes place; a new element would be the following elaboration by the student. A technique for evaluating tutorial participation would have to be devised. Members of the staff would have to be trained in the delicate task of conducing oral exams.

On the other hand by evaluating students continually throughout the year this innovation may make terms tests obsolete. This would go far in balancing the increased pressure on the administration.

The major burden added by this innovation would in arranging the loading on each exam method in accordance with each student's wish. Another problem would be in standardising the various techniques so that each have their pass-fail cut-off point in the same region.

Now for reasons why this system should replace the present system.

• It provides a method of evaluating students that takes account of their non-academic differences, and is consequently more just.

• It integrates, the teaching and examining systems, which arc now independent.

• It increases the freedom of the student, and so gives him a wider scope for responsibility.

Whether this system will replace the old system depends on what is considered by people as necessary and most useful in an examination system, and this is a matter to be settled by public debate.